Authority cannot be asserted; it must be earned.

In nearly every discipline, traditional hierarchies of authority are dissolving. Although this is supported by evidence in some cases - aviation and its crew-resource management (CRM) philosophy, for example - the leveling of authority in all cases is by no means universally beneficial.

We want students to develop critical reasoning skills by questioning received wisdom. But breaking down the gradient of authority impairs kids’ ability to receive well-vetted, widely-held knowledge. The transition from student to teacher is exemplary. One becomes an expert by working under the guidance of an expert. To prematurely flatten the hierarchy short-circuits the intellectual development of the nascent expert.

Even in the parenting relationship, authority must be earned. For some, authority is a punitive, prejudicial word when used in the context of child development. It conjures up ideas of a restricted range of expression, meanness, and even corporal punishment. But this confuses an authoritarian style with an authoritative one. In the former, parents assert authority by over-controlling, giving few options, punishing without explanation, and providing no warmth or nurturing. Parents who exhibit an authoritative style provide limits on what is acceptable and what is not while giving some latitude on how to live within those limits. The authoritative style balances nurturing and warmth with consistent limit-setting. Of course, there is a third style, common among U.S. parents, that places feeble and inconsistent limits on children while indulging their whims and desires. This laissez-faire style muddles nurturing with indulgence; and no authority is possible. Only good luck can salvage that style.

But authority cannot be taken for granted. Children need to sense that authority comes from a consistent place of wanting them to be successful, responsible, and ethical in the world. They do this by evaluating the tacit curriculum of the household. In other words, if parents model the behaviors and attributes they intend for their children to adopt, they must exhibit the same. Do you want your children to take learning seriously? Then you must show them the ways that you are constantly learning something new as an adult. Do you want your children to be able to delay gratification? Then put first things first yourself. The old adage: “Do as I say, not as I do.” sadly ignores the power of modeling.

The right of children to exert unconstrained choice is not appropriate. Instead, we should be thinking about how to help them progress from from dependent to independent in a stepwise fashion over years of development. When adults and kids do this, there is a symmetrical development of authority.

When kids live within a framework of earned authority and respect, not only do they progressively claim their own authority, but they learn and exercise the willpower that comes with deferring gratification.